The Female Gaze: Does it Exist and What Does it Look Like?
We’ve all heard of the Male Gaze, right? We’ve seen how Wonder Woman’s costume is essentially a bathing suit. How every music video is just overflowing with tits and ass. And how even in a commercial meant to sell women’s razors, none of the models have a single hair on their body while they shave by the… pool? (Because that’s a totally normal thing to do, right?) Even media and literature created by and directed at women is often formed through the male gaze because for the longest time, it was only male writers, directors and producers who set the standard.
Male Gaze 101
In 1975 film theorist Laura Mulvey published an essay which called out the blatant sexualization and objectification of female characters in film and television. She states that “the gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.” Mulvey also noted that the Male Gaze is often depicted in 3 ways:
1. How men look at women
2. How women look at themselves
3. How woman look at other women
(If you want to know more about the Male Gaze, or are looking for more than just a basic understanding of it, you can find a great breakdown of it here.)
Here are some examples of the Male Gaze:
1. Almost any high grossing movie at the box office.
(Just kidding… but seriously, go take a look at the box office top 5 at any time, usually just the promo images will tell on themselves)
But for real. Let’s start with one most of us already know: The Wolf of Wall Street.
You know, the one with Margot Robbie, where she does that thing with her… yeah you know.
This film is a classic example of the Male Gaze. Not only in terms of Robbie’s (and pretty much every other female character’s) appearance, personality and general purpose for the plot; but also through the male lead, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s handsome, rich, successful, and always the smartest guy in the room. He’s the dude that all the dudes want to be. The dude that all the dudes think the ladies day dream about.
However, the Male Gaze is not always so in-your-face about it. Another, more subtle, example is 2019’s Aladdin.
Yes, even innocent kid’s movies are not exempt, and if anything this one is even more concerning, because the indoctrination of the Male Gaze starts young, folks.
In Aladdin, the character of Jasmine (played by Naomi Scott) at face value seems to be a strong, smart, independent and confident women. A great role model for young girls if there ever was one. Yet, even though in this film the camera may not be panning across her backside, or angled down her shirt, if you pay attention, she is still highly objectified. She is only ever her father’s daughter to give away to a man of his choosing, or her captor’s victim, or Aladdin’s prize. She is not referred to as a women with her own agency, just as a plot device for the men in her life. She cannot exist without a man to exist for.
In recent years however, thanks to social and political movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, we are starting to see some disruptions to the Male Gaze, through the rise of what many are starting to refer to as the Female Gaze.
So what’s the difference?
Let’s get one thing out of the way, the difference is not a lack of sex appeal. The female gaze can be just as raunchy and borderline pornographic as the Male Gaze, but the focus is certainly shifted. It’s less about the sexiness of sex, and more about the way the that sex and relationships make us feel. The emotions, and the connections and the interactions. Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya says it best: “instead of seeing bodies as something to be consumed, maybe everybody finds a way to act with agency.”
HBO’s Girls (2012–2017) has plenty of instances where sex is viewed through the Female Gaze. A great one is in Season 5, Episode 5, when characters Jessa and Adam are in the early stages of their relationship, and trying to negotiate how to have sex that satisfies both of them. In this scene, the focus is not just on the fact that they are having sex, but how they are communicating as they go. They are able to laugh and navigate a role-play in real time. What’s sexy about it is not their nakedness, but their dedication to pleasure, and making one another feel good.
That’s not to say we can’t enjoy the view, because we do, but the view isn’t the only purpose of the scene.
Throughout the series, Girls portrays sex in many different forms and contexts: straight sex, gay sex, oral sex, mutual masturbation, quick sex, kinky sex, even bad sex. Sure, a handful of these scenes may not add to the plot in a way that is substantial or meaningful (sometimes a sex scene is just a sex scene) but the type of sex being had is determined by the individual characters and their specific needs.
However, the Female Gaze isn’t just about how we view sex, and it doesn’t just pertain to female characters. Male characters written through the Female Gaze are not the Jordan Belforts of the on-screen or on-page world. A very popular but still great example is the 1869 novel, Little Women. A novel that stands the test of time, and has been the subject of film adaption after film adaption. Little Women depicts the Female Gaze in many ways, one of them being the character of Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence.
All of the March sisters love Laurie. Why? He doesn’t sexualize them, or assume that they all want a piece of him or try to trick them or put them in their “place”. He treats them as his equals. His friends. He plays with them, comforts them, supports their goals and interests, and expects nothing in return. Amy March had Fred Vaughan, a handsome, wealthy European man with a good reputation, in the bag… but at the end of the day, he wasn’t who she truly wanted, just who she was supposed to be with as a symbol of status. She chose Laurie, because before anything else, he was her best friend, confidante and biggest cheerleader.
But another important aspect of the Female Gaze, is that a lot of the time, it has nothing to do with men or romantic relationships at all.
For example, the 2020 film Birds of Prey, Margot Robbie’s love letter to her character Harley Quinn, features no love interest, but a diverse cast of badass women, each with her own story and personality. In comparison to 2016’s male written and produced Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey showcases popular comic book character and femme fatale Harley Quinn in a whole new light. She doesn’t need to wear unprotective booty shorts and impractical stilettos to show that she is sexy. She doesn’t need to flirt to get her way. And she doesn’t need the big, brave men to save her.
In this film, Harley’s personality is more nuanced, and her goals are relatable, while still true to the crazy, psychotic character that she is. She wants to get over her ex and establish a career for herself (she might be marketing herself as a hit (wo)man/bounty hunter/dog walker/mercenary, but still, an independent business woman nonetheless). She shows that she can be nurturing toward her young sidekick and feels empathy toward the other abused women she partners up with. Her personal style is still sexy but in her way (and doesn’t force her to assist in military operations wearing the least protective clothing anyone’s ever seen). She is more than eye-candy — she still has sex appeal, but she is also a young, fun, creative and intelligent hero in her own right.
What does the Female Gaze mean for the future of entertainment?
Well, hopefully, better stories. More women and queer people writing and producing. More relatable characters. Characters that are messy, and not always conventionally attractive or made to simply be looked at.
The important thing to remember is that the Female Gaze is not just for women-oriented entertainment. Just because it is called the Female Gaze doesn’t mean it’s only for female-identifying people. It is only meant to subvert and redirect expectations and make them more realistic, because the Male Gaze can hurt everyone, including the men that most of these stories are made for.
The Female Gaze can allow for male characters with appearances and storylines where they don’t have to be the macho ladies-man. It can create more space for characters who are queer and/or gender non-conforming. It can allow for stories where there doesn’t even need to be a romantic subplot at all, for any characters.
We’re starting to move beyond stories with conflicts that revolve solely around sex and romance. We live in a world where women can be dominant, are CEOs, are no longer censoring themselves. Men are stay-at-home dads, makeup artists, are sensitive and willing to talk about it. Gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming more common and the binary is becoming more obsolete.
We may finally be able to look forward to an entertainment industry that is going to start reflecting the world we are living in now.
For more information regarding the Male and Female Gaze, check out these articles below:
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This piece was written for my content marketing class at George Brown College, as part of my graduate degree in Digital Media Marketing.
The premise of the assignment was to write a piece of engaging and educational content related to a subject matter of mychoice, and publish the piece online. As part of the assignment, I was also instructed to promote the article on an additional social platform and analyze the engagements and any other interesting statistics regarding the piece’s performance.
I chose to promote my piece on LinkedIn, as my main objective for this project was to use it to connect to other professionals in the writing and digital marketing industries.
Access the link to the original post here.
See the article posted on LinkedIn here.